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Dispirited: Zoning Board Denies Distillery Plan

Two Harrisburg residents hope to transform this dilapidated building into the city's first distillery.

Two Harrisburg residents had hoped to turn this building into a distillery.

The plan to locate a craft distillery in Midtown Harrisburg suffered a major setback last night, as the city’s Zoning Hearing Board denied a variance for the project.

The board unanimously turned down the variance request, which would have allowed Kennedy Spirits LLC to locate in the so-called Carpets and Draperies building at 1507 N. 3rd St. The proposal previously had been approved by the city’s Planning Commission.

The two-hour hearing was at times marked by heated exchanges between the applicants, Alan Kennedy-Shaffer and Stanley Gruen, and members of the board. The two parties seemed to have widely differing opinions over the level of documentation and detail necessary to approve the variance, which is needed because the area is not zoned to permit a distillery to operate there.

“We have endeavored to answer all of your questions,” said Kennedy-Shaffer, near the end of the hearing. “We believe we have met our burden under the law.”

The board, however, did not believe the information provided was sufficient to warrant approval.

“We don’t have the information required upon which to base a decision,” said board Chairwoman Marian Frankston. “We are disappointed with your presentation.”

The hearing was the second one in two weeks for the project, which proposed a tasting room and a bar, in addition to a manufacturing facility to produce about 500 gallons a week of such liquors as vodka, gin, whiskey and rye. During the first hearing, the board requested more information, documents and plans, necessitating last night’s special hearing.

Kennedy-Shaffer and Gruen presented some of the requested information, including a signed sales agreement for the dilapidated, three-story building, which was built in 1922 to house a home furnishings retailer called the Gerber Department Store, later renamed the Keystone Furniture Co. They also addressed questions about the building’s condition, customer parking, supply deliveries, storage and the distillation process.

Board members, however, felt their answers were not thorough enough. They wanted greater detail, such as floor plans and architectural renderings, as well as testimony from experts in the distillation of spirits, the waste it produces, safety issues and if that particular building is suited to serve as a distillery. Neither Kennedy-Shaffer nor Gruen is a distiller.

“We review real plans that are submitted to us,” said Frankston. “You submitted your dream.”

For their part, the partners were upset that the board did not let their distillery consultant, who is based in New Hampshire, testify over the telephone. They also felt that the information they provided should have been sufficient to grant the variance and that the level of detail and documentation the board wanted was onerous and costly.

The board gave the business partners the option to continue the hearing to its next meeting, slated for late February. However, Kennedy-Shaffer and Gruen said that a two-month delay could cause them to lose investors for the distillery, which they estimate will cost $1.2 million.

“I think this project will be dead in the water if we wait until February,” said Kennedy-Shaffer, who refused to agree to a continuance, leading the board to cast a negative vote.

Following the meeting, Gruen and Kennedy-Shaffer said they would have to assess their next step.

“We’re going to move forward,” said Gruen. “The question is where.”

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